Despite taking huge strides towards equality, women continue to be typecast and under-represented in the media. OpinionFront tells you more about this.
Can you get dumber than this…
Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society. ~ Rush Limbaugh (Radio talk show host)
We know them all, the stereotypical femme fatale, the naive girl-next-door, the mean corporate climber, the frumpy housewife, the sexy and painfully thin female action hero. Many would say that women have taken long strides towards achieving equality in a male-dominated world. Somehow, our perception and portrayal of women in popular mass media continues to be stuck to the stereotypical images of women, which are biased and grossly objectified. There is no doubt that forms of mass media like newspapers, magazines, books, television, films and computers have become an integral part of our lives. The images they present affect our thought process and ideas significantly. One of the major debates that has assailed popular media is the representation of women.
Apart from a depressing under-representation of women in news, television and film media, whenever portrayed in the media, women are often cast as passive, dependent, weak and overtly sexual individuals. Their usefulness stems from being a mother, a caretaker, a victim, or simply a sexual plaything. Here are some instances of negative portrayal of women in the media.
As Sexual Objects
It is so common to see a scantily clad woman on magazine covers, films, music videos and advertisements, and it’s not just limited to that. Even video games that have children as their major audience feature a number of half-naked women. Research done by Children Now, a national organization found that 38% of female characters found in video games are wearing revealing clothing, 23% are showing cleavage.
The blatant sexualization of women extends to children movies and cartoons as well, where all the famous female characters are extremely thin with tiny waists, big hair and are dressed minimally to show off their curves, and not to forget a very defined cleavage. Of course, they are so weak and helpless that they are totally dependent on their “knight in shining armor” to rescue them.
Women, instead of being treated as intelligent, thinking beings, are portrayed as sexual objects. Judith Posner defines it as, “Objectification is the object-like character of an image that connotes passivity, vulnerability, property, and, in its most extreme form, victimization.” There is an over-representation of thin women who are used for selling everything, from food, cars, to deodorants for men. The most common reason for this is that “sex sells.” Can you imagine the impact of this continuous stream of the “ideal female body” image and “thin is beautiful” message on the viewers?
When women in media are portrayed only as sex icons and there is a barrage of ideal body images by the popular media, women become increasingly dissatisfied with their bodies. The negative body image leads to concerns about weight and appearance. This not just affects adults but a number of younger women and girls as well. Studies by Striegel-Moore and Franko in 2002, have shown that nearly half the girls in the age group of six to eight said they wanted to become thinner. This can have a disastrous result on the growth and development of a person. Disturbed body image is often linked with eating disorders and weight anxiety. The Canadian Health Network found that the average female model is “taller and weighs 25% less than the average woman.”
Women as Stereotypes
The media is full of ethnic, gender and economic stereotypes, and one of the most common gender stereotypes are portrayals of women. If the portrayal is of a teenage girl then she is usually quite dumb and pretty with interests in makeup, fashion and of course, boys. On television, women are more likely to be portrayed as housewives instead of working women. Even if they are in working roles, they are not in leadership roles, or are assumed to not achieve their goals. Some of the most common media images of women include “the glamorous sex kitten, the saintly mother, the devious witch, the hard-faced corporate and political climber.” (report by UNESCO, 2009). The report also stated that going by the current trends it would take approximately 75 years for gender equality in media.
Rather than reflecting the diversity of their social and professional lives, these stereotypical images focuses more on the audience’s expectations on women’s roles.
When something is shown over and over again, it just tends to reinforce the image in the mind of the audience. These stereotypes, instead of being disregarded by viewers, are treated as role models. Based on the character’s role in television, stories, and video games, the audience often tries to emulate their characteristics. As Susan Fiske, a researcher of stereotyping and discrimination, and Professor of Psychology at Princeton University says, “stereotyping exerts control or power over people, pressuring them to conform; therefore, stereotyping maintains the status quo.”
There is economics involved in it too. Since most of the prime-time serials and movies are aimed at a target audience that is primarily male, and in the age group of 19 to 34, they need to focus on stereotypical women that they believe men would watch. So if it is sex and violence that the audience want, then it is what they will get.
In Passive, Incompetent Roles
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has published a report that provided startling figures of the passive and often, non-existent role of women in popular media. According to the report, around 73.5% of the family drama films had a male narrator. Compared to 68.5% men, only 31.5% of women are speaking characters in prime-time comedies. If depicted, their roles are confined to that of consummate housewife. Shows that feature professional women often depict them vastly different from their male counterparts. The lead roles in these shows are often concerned more with concepts of marriage and sex. Moreover, they allow the men to take the lead and solve their problem instead of doing so on their own.
This is prevalent in children’s shows as well, where only 18% of the characters are female. Most of the time, they are incompetent and rarely able to solve problems on their own.
The idea that women need men and are incapable of doing things on their own can be disastrous, especially when it concerns children. What they see as being acceptable, influences them in far greater ways than anything else. They watch the women in shows who seek out men for advice and every little thing. This propagates the idea that instead of self-improvement and actualization, what is needed more is male companionship.
Women in News and Sports
News and sports, which are always considered a man’s domain, is particularly noticeable by the inadequate women’s coverage. The Media and Gender Monitor reported that only 24% of news stories were reported about women globally in 2011.
In majority of the news stories, they were victims of accidents, crimes, discrimination or some health issues. Common issues that are often considered “private” like marital rape, wage inequality or domestic abuse took a backseat to the overwhelming percentage of male-dominated news. Stories of a woman’s professional abilities and expertise were also ignored. A study of the Australian media in 2008-09, found that of the in 33% of women-related issues, the family status (mother, daughter, wife, sister, or other family relationship) was mentioned compared to 13% of men. Women were described as homemakers or parents in 75% of news articles.
Apart from being underrepresented in hard news, the presence of women professionals in news media was also very less. According to the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), although 57% of news presenters were female, only 29% of the news stories were written by women.
In sports news, the figures are even more dismal with only two percent of the airtime occupied by women. Margaret Carlisle Duncan and Michael Messner came up with a report that stated commentators, most of whom were men, used the words “big,” “strong,” “brilliant,” “gutsy” and “aggressive,” to describe male athletes and “weary”, “fatigued,” “frustrated,” “panicked,” “vulnerable” and “choking” to describe female athletes.
The trivialization of women, and the lack of representation in news and sports, has created an unconscious bias in society towards women. Somehow their problems or achievements do not seem to hold the same importance as that of their male counterparts.
The media is a powerful tool of change and to bring about a positive change, we have to take certain initiatives. Like any business, media also caters to its viewers and tries to match up to the viewers expectations. If something is offensive then feedback to the editors or online comments can let them know of viewers opinions. With simple steps like these, we can influence a positive change and correct the representation of women.